- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- Brett who?
That was the obvious question to be asked Monday, a day when Brett Gardner suffered yet another setback in his seemingly endless recovery from an elbow strain, and his replacement -- or at least, half of it -- Raul Ibañez hit a dramatic eighth-inning grand slam to pull out a 6-3 New York Yankees victory over the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium.
By now, 89 games into the 2012 season, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Gardner's injury has hurt him a lot more than it has hurt the Yankees.
Since Gardner went down on April 17, the Yankees have gone 49-29. They have the best record in baseball, a nine-game lead over the AL East and the ability to equalize any game with one swing of the bat, as they did Monday night.
It is not meant as a knock on Gardner to say that, despite all he can add to an offense, the Yankees have really not missed his speed and defense as much as you might have expected when he went down after a line drive in a game against the Twins here three months ago.
In fact, you can make the case that as productive as Gardner was last year, the Jurassic Park platoon of Ibañez, who turned 40 last month, and Andruw Jones, who turned 35 in April, has been every bit as productive as Gardner was likely to have been this year, and a whole lot more dangerous.
Yes, you give away a ton of stolen bases and a handful of triples, and a significant amount of range in left field. (I'll leave it to the UZR crowd to calculate how much more ground Gardner covers out there than the two statues taking his place.)
But on the other side of the ledger, who would you rather have coming to the plate in the eighth inning of a tie game with two outs and the bases loaded?
True, neither Ibañez (0-for-11) nor Jones (0-for-1) had done anything with the bases loaded this season, which put them right in step with the rest of their teammates, who have been among the worst performers in baseball in what should be a hitter's most advantageous situation.
And in his brief career, Gardner has been no slouch with the bases loaded, batting .325 with one home run and 30 RBIs.
Still, his game is creating runs, and Monday night's game called for a hitter who could belt them in.
It called for a hitter like Ibañez, who may not bring the chaos that Gardner brings to the basepaths or the grace he brings to the outfield, but hits the ball with authority and, often, for long distance.
Ibañez turned out to be exactly the hitter the Yankees needed in this game, in that situation, on another night when they struggled in the clutch -- 2-for-7 with runners in scoring position to that point, and one of those hits did not drive in a run, and 0-for-2 with the bases loaded.
He benefited from watching first Mark Teixeira and then Nick Swisher work Jason Frasor through five- and eight-pitch at-bats, respectively, and from his own history with the bases loaded -- before this season, Ibañez's bases-loaded batting average was .328, with nine grand slams and 175 RBIs.
And he benefited most of all from his powerful, natural pull stroke, a gift Gardner was not blessed with, that allowed him to turn on Frasor's 3-1 fastball and deposit it into the second deck in right, turning a 2-2 nail-biter into a 6-2 lead, and eventual 6-3 victory.
On Sunday, GM Brian Cashman had told a brutal truth -- "Not as an insult to Brett Gardner, but we haven't missed him because the other guys are doing such a great job for us" -- and on Monday afternoon came the news, not totally unexpected, that Gardner was still experiencing pain in his elbow after taking four at-bats in a simulated game, putting his return this season very much in doubt.
Had this news been known back in April, it probably would have been greeted as a disaster, especially since both Ibañez and Jones looked every bit their ages in spring training and were being counted on strictly as designated hitters, not as -- gasp! -- everyday outfielders.
But now, 80 games later, Gardner's injury, although catastrophic for him, has turned out to be less than that for the Yankees, and in some ways may even be something of a blessing.
"We miss his speed and we miss his defense," skipper Joe Girardi said. "And he got off to a great start for us. But it has allowed us to DH Alex [Rodriguez] and [Derek Jeter] more and its probably given more playing time to [Eric] Chavez.
"He's the one guy in our lineup who can create a lot of different things with his speed," the manager said of Gardner. "We're a little different type of club without him in the lineup, there's no doubt about that."
But are they a less effective club? It's difficult to make that case, especially when you compare Gardner's production through 89 games last season and the Ibañez/Jones platoon through the same number of games this season.
The comparison is less than precise because the two have gotten more combined at-bats (362) than Gardner had to the same point last season (269), due to several games in which both have played, but the numbers are still indicative of how different the Yankees' offense is with and without Gardner.
Through 89 games last season, Gardner was batting .272. he had an on-base percentage of .352 and an OPS of .753. He had 73 hits, had scored 43 runs, had 12 doubles, five triples, four home runs and 18 RBIs. He had walked 32 times and struck out 55 times.
Through the same number this season, Ibañez and Jones have combined for a .240 batting average. They have a total of 87 hits, 17 doubles, 1 triple (by Ibañez), 23 home runs and 62 RBIs. Between them, they have walked 33 times and struck out 75 times.
Clearly, they give away a significant number of stolen bases -- Gardner had 23, Ibañez three and Jones zero -- but just as clearly, the Yankees are a much greater threat to score, or bust a game open, with either of them at the plate than Gardner.
And that is not only because of the kind of player Gardner is, but because of the kind of players Ibañez and Jones are, and have been for many years now.
The Yankees have weathered a lot of injuries this year, from the loss of Michael Pineda in spring training to the loss of Mariano Rivera in Kansas City in May and Andy Pettitte right here in the Bronx last month.
In every case, they have found a suitable replacement, and yet, at least in the case of Rivera and Pettitte, long for the day when both will return.
Brett Gardner, too, is missed, and the Yankees will be glad to get him back when he is ready to return.
But clearly, there is no longer any desire to rush him back and, quite frankly, no need to.
The Yankees may not necessarily be a better team with two senior citizens taking the place of a speedy, energetic 28-year-old in the outfield, but as demonstrated in the eighth inning Monday night, they might just be more dangerous.
Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones are filling in quite nicely for injured Brett Gardner.